Ever since the latest accounts of sexual harassment in India emerged, I have been sitting here and waiting for something. I have been waiting for men to speak up. Not about the usual male response to such issues, which ranges from dismissive jokes which trivialise the matter to legalistic concoctions on the lines of ‘where is the evidence’ (funny how every male is a lawyer at heart, isn’t it?) or ‘what was she doing for so many years’. Not discussions on ‘the percentage of fake cases in sexual harassment complaints’. Not fears and anxieties about being ‘unfairly targetted’. I was waiting for some evidence, even the tiniest bit, that men were carrying out some sort of soul-search. That they were questioning the privileges which have led to a situation like this. Some indication that they were examining the problems with patriarchy or with the boys’ club. I was waiting for the tiniest hint of self-examination.
I have not heard anything. Therefore, for what it is worth, here are a few things.
The standard response of any power group to evidence of their privilege and suppression of the powerless is predictable. It ranges from denial to a fixation with trivialities to deprecating, even insulting, humour to violent reprisals. Therefore the standard urban upper caste response about caste discrimination is to deny that it exists, and to ignore instances of it in their own lives. Therefore the racist seeking refuge in euphemisms where the older discriminatory language no longer suffices. Therefore the male reaction to Me Too.
I used to think, till two days ago, that the male response this time is this standard reaction of an entrenched power group. That the virulence of the arguments against Me Too and the harassment allegations are a part of the male response to the idea of gender equality. I now realise that I was somewhat wrong. The renewed strength and virulence of the boys’ club is a symptom of deeply-held fears about the possibility of gender equality and justice at some point, a situation which males are simply not able to face with honesty or self-awareness.
This is why even the ‘nice’ men, those who worked with predators, often in powerful positions, and were witness to these incidents have not spoken up. This is why there have hardly been any male voices talking about the need for some soul-searching by their brothers. This, too, is a form of consent. The silence of these men, their inability to acknowledge or perhaps even realise how deep the rot runs is a symptom of their consenting to the evils of patriarchy. It is, at once, consent and a consensus: this unified response from men which is deafening in its silence.
So, men ask: please tell us what harassment is? How long should a handshake last? Now we will be scared of talking to our female colleagues or in social circumstances. We are scared of fake cases, we are scared of reprisals. Really? When did male fear become the issue? How did a movement about women being relentlessly preyed upon become about assuaging male anxieties? Why is the onus once again on women to be on the guard, to take steps, to pursue cases, to gather evidence? Why have women, once again, been tasked with ‘civilising’ the boys? When there is a viral infection, do we give counselling to the body or do we deal with the virus? Or is it that, by ignoring the truth that the problem lies with men, we are acknowledging that men are incorrigible; that individually they are irresponsible and collectively they have the moral qualms of a wolf pack? If that were the case, the implications should offend men. So why do these ‘nice’ men not speak up now?
So, men ask: what is harassment? When you tell a double-meaning joke or anecdote to your male colleague in the earshot of women, does that not harass her? When you know there is a predator in your midst, and will not speak up, is that not consent on your part? When your individual behaviours, in individual, everyday ways, lower the bar day after day, when ordinary, everyday behavioural patterns force women into silence and into corners, is that not a part of the problem? Or is it only outright criminal behaviour that is to be classed as harassment?
This deafening silence, this absence of an internal dialogue, this inherent dishonesty among men is the problem that they need to address. Or are they waiting, once again, for the women to call them out on this so they will come up with more retorts and trivialities?
What is needed is honesty by men, an acknowledgment that they are complicit. They need to speak up. It is very late, but they can still speak up. Because they might be complicit in ways they may not have realised.
Ages ago, when I still considered myself male and was in college, I found myself in front of a typewriter that a very close friend had bought. He wanted me to inaugurate it by writing a story. I thought: let me try a genre I had not written in before. So I wrote a small passage of erotica. I was complicit in my maleness, in my privilege, in my inability to understand what the egotistical male mind is capable of. I wrote the story, and in my stupidity I made the central characters my friend and a female classmate. The story happened to be circulated, and caused considerable pain to both these classmates, and infinitely more to the woman. Was that not a result of my male privilege and refusal to understand the responsibilities of a writer? And why was it that I did not realise this while writing it? Because I was a man, and was blind to the implications of male privilege. There has not been a day when I have not regretted this, and not a day when I have not rebuked myself for my actions, even afterwards when I stopped considering myself as a male.
The response from men need not be limited to acknowledging your own actions and words. That is an easy way out. ‘Oh, I have never harassed anyone. This issue does not relate to me at all.’ But it does. As witnesses, as participants, as enablers and as members of this boys’ club that grows bolder by the day. Examine your conscience. Speak up. Fix the disease. Get rid of the virus. It is your responsibility. It has always been your responsibility. Don’t con yourself into thinking otherwise.